Business school interview

Harvard B-school interview: An inside view

July 25, 2013: 11:29 AM ET

The business school's student newspaper has offered a revealing portrait of the admissions process and offers up 96 interview questions.

By John A. Byrne

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(Poets&Quants) -- For two full weeks before his MBA admissions interview at Harvard Business School, Alex Kleiner would mull over a list of potential questions every night before going to bed. He drove up to Boston on a Sunday from his parents home in Connecticut the night before his scheduled session with an HBS admissions official.

On the Monday morning just after the Thanksgiving Day holiday, Kleiner slipped on a dark navy suit, a blue shirt, conservative tie, and black shoes. "Nothing too flashy," he recalls. And then he reported to a small room at Dillon House where two women sat opposite him. One asked the questions, and one feverishly scribbled notes.

Over the next 30 minutes, he received only one question for which he wasn't completely ready for: "What was your proudest moment in college?"

"It caught me off guard because all the questions I had received until then I had prepared for," recalls Kleiner.

After all, it had been nearly four years since Kleiner graduated from Yale University with an undergraduate degree in history. Since then, he had worked for two years as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch in New York and for two more years in private equity at Vector Capital in San Francisco.

He told the HBS admissions staffers how, as president and captain of the university's club ice hockey team, he helped to organize a match against Johns Hopkins University to commemorate the first collegiate ice hockey game ever played.

"It went by in the blink of an eye," recalls Kleiner. "I walked out thinking it had only begun a couple of seconds earlier. But I felt I had done a good job getting my points across. It was actually pretty comforting. Both people were kind and receptive and engaged in our conversation. The second person didn't speak but she would nod and make facial expressions to let me know she was listening to my answers."

Soon enough, Kleiner would be offered a seat in Harvard's class of 2014. Now, as editor-in-chief of The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper, the 28-year-old has found himself leading a team of students who have just published the latest "Unofficial Harvard Business School Interview Guide."

The newest edition of the guide has been substantively revised and updated -- and, at 68 pages long, (up from just 40 pages last year) is the largest ever published by The Harbus. The question that surprised Kleiner -- along with advice on how to approach an answer -- is among 96 questions revealed in the guide. All of those questions come from current students who successfully navigated the HBS admissions process. "We try in our analysis to give insight to what the admissions committee is after for each question," adds Kleiner.

In addition to the questions, which range from the most obvious to the highly unpredictable, the $65 guide contains a new section offering the best general admissions advice from successful HBS applicants. (The money made from the guide goes to support the foundation that publishes The Harbus newspaper). Kleiner and his MBA colleagues, for example, tossed in a section on timing, urging applicants to give themselves at least two months to study for the GMAT and three months to complete the HBS application alone.

The questions, or at least the nearly 100 shared in the guide, cover a fairly vast range of issues and experiences that could easily trip up a candidate. Consider: "What is the most interesting conversation you have had this week?" or "Tell me a piece of news that you are currently following and very interested in?" The latter question is the motivation for the advice to begin a new morning routine on the day you schedule your admissions interview. "Browse all the headlines of all the major business news sites, read any stories that seem particularly pertinent, and be sure to hit up any sites that cover your industry and employer in particular (you don't want to get broadsided during your interview!)."

For Kleiner, the admissions interview worked backwards. "I was asked about my time at my current job and what I liked about it. Then, I was asked about my experience in investment banking before that. She asked why I switched to private equity from banking. I had prepared for that and gave my answer and then we kept going backwards. We started talking a lot about Yale and my experiences there, including why I majored in history and whether I got out of it what I wanted."

As far as he is concerned, the most challenging questions are those that ask you "to brag a little bit or to be introspective. It's not always easy to sit in front of an interviewer and say that to them. The whole interview is crammed into 30 minutes and it is really rapid fire. You don't get much of a reaction to your answers because they're trying to fit in as many questions as possible. It can be very tough for a lot of people, especially those who haven't interviewed for two or three years since they went through the process to get their last job."

Questions on leadership often absorb a good chunk of the interview time. "They definitely ask you a lot of questions on leadership," says Kleiner. "What kind of leader are you? What is your definition of a leader and how might you fit that description? Have you worked with any truly exceptional leaders in your last job and tell me why you thought they were great?"

The most unpredictable question in the guide this year? Kleiner has a few favorites that fit that description, including, "Explain something to me as if I were an eight-year-old."

"It's a funny one that comes up commonly," he says. "The point of this question is to see if you are ready to participate in the case method at HBS. Your own thoughts, however complicated, may have to be explained to 90 people in a classroom, some of whom may be experts in a field and others who may be novices. So they are testing all of that in a very simple question. It's a really good skill to have."

Another common question: "Tell me something you want to start doing, something you want to do more of, and something you want to do less of."

"Professors often ask for similar feedback from their students," says Kleiner. "It's a chance for you to step out and give an honest appraisal of who you are. It forces you to be more concrete than a more typical strength and weakness question."

The guide divides questions into six categories: experience, current events, leadership, situational, career, and curriculum. There also are sections to make your visit to Boston productive: lists of where to go and where to eat, where to shop and where to stay.

And, of course, there is the requisite advice on what to wear: For women, the guide recommends a suit color and style that is simple and classic. "Skirt lengths need to be at least knee length," the editors counsel. "Wear closed toed pumps and a heel height of one-to-three inches." For men, the guidance is Esquire-esque: "Make sure the suit fits properly. Ask a tailor (or your mom).... Suit color palate for the formal interview: black, gray, or navy blue. You may choose plain or (sensible) pinstripes. Reserved sport coat also works, though a good suit is fail-safe."

Kleiner says he relied heavily on the guide to help him prepare for the interview. "I formulated a list of questions, using the interview guide as a starting point. Then, I added more specific questions based on my application and resume. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I would think about them and what my answers would be before I went to bed every night."

So when it came to the sit down for his session, he felt prepared. "As it came to the end, I didn't get an opportunity to ask questions," he recalls. "But they gave me the last word. 'What is one thing you want to convey as your interview comes to an end?' I said that 'I really want to come to Harvard. This is my first choice. This is where I see myself.'" Indeed.

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